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Spain: The Language Problem

Language is an important factor in national unity, which is threatened by a linguistic babel. Spanish, or Castilian, was carried from Castile to Andalusia and the New World with the advance of the conquistadores; in 1492 Antonio de Nebrija described language as the instrument of empire. Now Spain itself is threatened with linguistic chaos as Catalan, Basque, and even Gallego assert themselves. The new law of Catalan is unacceptable to the Madrid government, while mysterious Basque, once viewed as a hill-billy language, is asserting itself as an official language of the region. The problem is that few Castilians understand Catalan, and virtually noone understands Basque.

Surprisingly, this has given official importance to La Rioja, a province on the upper Ebro, just south of the Basque country, which few visit. The reason is that it is the birthplace of Castilian, which developed from Latin under the influence of Basque. The great master of Roman oratory, Quintilian, was born in Calahorra. He too realized the importance of language to the empire, and he protested against provincialisms, presumably referring to Basque words which had crept into the Latin of la Rioja. In 1997 the Spanish government staged an international conference on Quintilian at Calahorra.

In January 1998 prime minister Felipe Aznar and his cultural ministers toured the Logrono area , and he made speeches praising it as the birthplace of Spanish. He spoke in a sad tone, without the nasty French resentment over the international supremacy of the English language, which Spaniards graciously accept that. His sadness was clearly inspired by the thrust of Basque by the terrorist ETA, which had just committed one more murder. Aznar was returning from the victim's funeral. He almost broke into tears when he referred to it; the sympathetic audience applauded him. To stress the importance Madrid attaches to language, the monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla was declared a cultural shrine.

Ronald Hilton, 03/15/98